The Booze Bag: That Old Fall Ferment

The leaves are mostly gone on my street, I’m wearing a coat to work, Halloween is right around the corner and for New England Booze Bags all these signs should indicate that a batch of hard cider is gently bubbling away in your cellar; slowly processing apple juice into home made liquid gold.

I have wanted to ferment my own cider for years (and, had I known how relatively simple it is as a teenager; I imagine I could have gotten myself into some serious trouble). Thankfully, I didn’t become aware of the alchemy of home fermentation, turning juice into hard cider, until I was approaching middle age. (For some reason this feels like the ultimate middle-aged man’s hobby: visit any local home brew store and you’ll see what I mean.) With a little oversight from a seasoned friend and some math/measuring help from my wife I was finally able to get started.

For several years I’ve had most of the paraphernalia needed to make hard cider. Due to a myriad of variables (timing, temperature, space, getting the right ingredients, etc.) I was never able to get a batch going. Every spring I came across the vapor lock and champagne yeast on my workbench and would think, “Ah next fall this is something I want to do…” Year after year with no resulting cider. Until this year; when something fortuitous happened: my wife started shopping at Whole Foods and I went with her. As I was mindlessly following her around the bulk food isle where she was buying quinoa and flaxseeds by the pound…there it was: like hope in the Pandora’s box that is the bulk food isle; a display featuring 1-gallon bottles of organic apple juice. I had seen similar displays in other supermarkets, but they were never quite right; a plastic jug, full of preservatives or both — which would kill fermentation.

But, Whole Foods, with its crunchy, earth-friendly schtick gets you (and me!) 75% of the way to (y)our home fermentation goal. They sell 1-gallon glass jugs of pasteurized, organic apple juice (both critical components)! All you need to add (literally) is brewing yeast (champagne or ale) and a vapor lock. Having a candy thermometer and a little bit of know how will also be helpful, but who’s keeping track.

There are countless blogs and websites devoted to the step-by-step process of making hard cider. They certainly do better job of that than I can, so I won’t bother to going into the details, but will offer a good websitefor your reference: There are also several great books devoted to cider making, including Cider by Annie Proulox.

The biggest issue/stumbling block I have faced is that at every single step or stage you will read conflicting instructions for fermenting. From the optimal temperature to how soon should you rack; everyone will tell you something slightly different. Part of this is due to the fact that you are in control of several variables that effect the outcome of the cider. Do you want it sweet or dry? Carbonated or flat? High in alcohol or low? Getting to the holy grail of sweet, slightly carbonated, and higher in alcohol content is an art form. Part of the the reason for the disparity in information is that people have been fermenting for thousands of years and the tools we are using now are vastly different from the tools used just over a hundred years ago. I can now just open up a specially formulated yeast packet which will yield the same type of yeast every single time. This wasn’t always the case. Additionally, the jug quality, the filters, racking, even how we obtain the juice—it’s all night and day different than it was 50 years ago. While there are many do’s and dont’s to cider brewing, keep in mind it is a natural process that often happens on its own. For thousands of years man has been letting buckets of various fruits sit and ferment out in the elements. The advantage we have today is that we can control many of the variables and the good news is most mistakes can be overcome without loosing the entire batch.

As I wrote earlier, it’s easy to get started but it’s something of an art form to get just right. It reminds me a bit of baking; while the ingredients might seem simple, how and when you combine them is key. Only instead of hours with baking, you must wait months before you know how your batch of cider turned out. I currently have several 1-gallon batches rolling in my basement, each made in a slightly different manner. I have created a cider log which you can download here. I have found it extremely helpful in keeping track of my work and the small changes I have made batch to batch. If one of my batches does turn out well I will be able to replicate it next year.

Tips from what I have learned so far:

  • Do use yeast nutrient and pectic enzyme.
  • Bring about a gradual fermentation and then a gradual cessation for optimal cider production. A huge initial boil of fermentation might be exciting but can burn through your sugar too soon giving you high alcohol with poor flavor.
  • The best siphons might not come from a brewing store .
  • Name and label each batch with a post-it. It is extremely helpful for following the batch from jug to jug post rack all the way through bottling.
  • Keep a cider log. It feels a little science project’esque but, hey, you are running a chemistry experiment.
  • Healthy Fermentation can occur anywhere from 58 to 85 degrees. Well within the range of most home temps.

At the end of the day it’s probably cheaper (and certainly faster) to just buy hard cider, but that would deprive you of the most magical of DIY feelings. I AM MAKING ALCOHOL! Every couple of days when I check my batch, counting the bubbles in the airlock checking on the fermentation’s progress…I am smiling ear to ear like the village idiot.

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